A union leader to crown them all

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 05:00 19/10/2012
Helen Kelly
MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post
HELEN KELLY: Says workers in dangerous professions need a voice.

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Karl du Fresne

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OPINION: It's a long time since the New Zealand trade union movement has had a leader as forceful and articulate as Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly.

Like her late father Pat, a fiery Irish Marxist from Liverpool, she's a fighter who gives the impression of never taking a backward step. She would have been brought up to regard compromise as the dirtiest word in the English lexicon.

It may not always be the wisest approach politically, but no-one would ever die wondering which side she's on - which is not something that could be said of all her predecessors.

Fintan Patrick Walsh, the power behind the Federation of Labour in the 1950s and 60s, was a bully and a tyrant who didn't hesitate to crush fellow unionists if they got in his way or dared to defy him.

The wily Sir Tom Skinner was viewed with distrust by many of his union brethren, who suspected him of making secret late-night trips to Parliament to do deals with the Tory enemy over a bottle of whisky. 

Jim Knox was well-liked and well-meaning but out of his depth. A man of limited education, he had a simplistic view of industrial relations that was inadequate for the turbulent times.

Ken Douglas, a Soviet-aligned communist, inherited a union movement in upheaval following the economic reforms of the 1980s. For his attempts to hold a splintering movement together, he was branded a traitor to the working class - a label that still dogs him among some old-school unionists.

Ross Wilson was the first CTU president of a new breed: University-educated, quietly spoken and almost bookish. He did a conscientious job, but it was hard to imagine him storming the barricades.

Ms Kelly combines the best attributes of some of her predecessors. Like Mr Wilson she has a law degree, but she doesn't hesitate to wade into a brawl, as was evident during the 2010 dispute over The Hobbit.  But she will almost certainly never see unions regain the strength they enjoyed (and abused) in the 1970s, the era she recently said she would most like to go back to. 

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It may be happening largely out of the public gaze, but that doesn't mean the review of New Zealand's constitutional arrangements isn't being closely watched.

Critics of the constitutional review accuse it of working towards a predetermined outcome that will see the Treaty of Waitangi entrenched as supreme law and judges given powers to strike down any law deemed to be in breach of Treaty ''principles''.

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The National Party agreed to the review as part of its deal with the Maori Party after the last election. As Winston Peters pointed out, there was no public demand for it; it arose out of opportunistic political horse-trading. Such are the flaws of MMP.

Critics are also suspicious of the review panel's composition. Although it is co-chaired by respected law academic John Burrows, it appears to be disproportionately weighted toward Maori. Sir Tipene O'Regan is the other co-chairman and Ranginui Walker is one of the four other Maori members.

Mr Peters is not alone in expressing misgivings. In fact, alarm bells are being rung right across the political spectrum. Former ACT MP Muriel Newman is campaigning against the review and Left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter wrote a scathing column in this paper pointing out that the supremacy of parliament - a central tenet of our constitutional arrangements - was under threat.

The fact the review panel has so far operated largely out of the public view has done little to allay critics' suspicions, but the panel's website now lists a range of organisations it has been having ''conversations'' with. Openness is surely the best approach to reassure people there's nothing to be afraid of.

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Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia wishes the media would stop harping on about Nia Glassie, the Kahui twins, James Whakaruru, Delcelia Witika and other Maori children who have died as the result of violence. Ms Turia says they deserve to be left in peace.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. An alternative view is that we should never be allowed to forget them.

I have no doubt Ms Turia is sincerely committed to ending violence toward Maori kids, but you have to wonder if her commitment is shared by everyone in Maoridom. Many Maori leaders are quick to demand redress for supposed Pakeha wickedness but are strangely mute when it comes to denouncing appalling behaviour by their own people.  If it discomforts them to be confronted constantly with evidence of the outrages perpetrated on Maori children, surely that's no bad thing

- The Dominion Post

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